Engineering a Way for Businesses to Partner with Schools: An Interview with Lila Ibrahim
“Engineering students want to solve the world’s problems and to use engineering to do so.”
In this Ashoka Changemakers interview, Lila Ibrahim, an internationally-recognized leader in the field of engineering and business, discusses how she encourages women to become technologists, and how to build successful private-sector partnerships that strengthen science, technology, education, and math (STEM) learning in schools.
Ibrahim is a partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), a leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. Before joining KPCB, Ibrahim had a diverse 18-year career with Intel Corp, where she led the startup business of Intel's Emerging Markets Product Group, as well as Intel’s Digital Village Initiative, which delivered technology projects to advance entrepreneurship, health, education, and e-governance all over the world. Ibrahim was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and was featured on the cover of ForbesWoman (2009) for her role in promoting women in technology.
During the past decade, Ibrahim has established and sustained three computer labs at the orphanage in Lebanon where her father was raised. She earned her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, where she continues to guest lecture.
Changemakers: Why do you give talks to inspire women studying engineering at Purdue University?
Ibrahim: When I was a freshman at Purdue, sitting in the first year engineering classes, I was completely overwhelmed. I recall questioning whether I had made the right choice, from an educational standpoint.
At the time, my dream was to work for the United Nations, and I was debating whether I should go into something like linguistics or foreign relations instead. But I had a fantastic class, specifically for women and engineers, which brought in 14 women professionals to speak about a topic of their choice.
I heard such different stories from professional women in engineering — whether electric or chemical, whether they were working for Frito Lay or General Electric — that really inspired me to stick with engineering. I’ve never regretted that decision, so I’ve made the commitment to try and return to that same class each year and talk to students who are looking for the same kind of inspiration.
Changemakers: You have told Purdue students that the spread of digital technology means today’s college engineers can “redefine how the next generation around the world will live, work, and play.” What is driving this change?
Ibrahim: When my father pursued engineering, it was very much about being able to provide a stable life for his family. When I went into engineering, right out of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, it was regarded as an opportunity for career success and upward mobility.
But starting about three years ago, when I would go back to speak at Purdue, I noticed that women engineering students wanted to go change the world. Engineering students want to solve the world’s problems and to use engineering to do so.
This shift in perspective demonstrates how ubiquitous technology has become. Its access is no longer limited to the technological elite, because of increased affordability and increased simplicity of the user interface.
You now find technology all over the world, whether it’s farmers in Southeast Asia using cell phones, or elementary students in Nigeria learning to use computers. It’s really nice to see that engineering students recognize that ubiquity and also recognize that with their own understanding of technology, they can close the gaps presented by social, economic, and environmental challenges.
Changemakers: Is this new reality motivating women to study engineering?
Ibrahim: I think it’s interesting that what students want to do with engineering has changed, but what’s a little disappointing is that when I ask women engineers why they’ve gotten into engineering, the answers are still the same. They say, “I’m really good at math and science,” or, “My dad or uncle was an engineer.” I wish we had a way to influence more students and at a younger age, to help them understand earlier what engineering really is.
You do have companies like Intel that are developing programs that are having an impact, and deploying professionals who are passionate about this issue to reach younger students. But it’s challenging to find the right voice and to get that voice out to the right audience that’s willing to listen.
Changemakers: At Intel, you worked to bring technology to schools in countries that needed to become more competitive in the global economy. How did they get their students more engaged students in STEM subjects?
Ibrahim: In my last job at Intel, I saw countries where the desperate need to develop a more competitive work force was driving changes in their primary, middle, and high schools. They understood that being able to create new businesses and grow them, and to solve the problems in their societies, all started with human capacity. And so they were starting to figure out how to address this in the younger years.
Countries like Argentina, Portugal, and Macedonia are all trying to introduce their students to technology as a tool so they can become more proficient in STEM subjects at a younger age.
Portugal is an interesting example. They have computers for all students through the fourth grade — all 400,000 students in the country. They created jobs because of the need for software written in the local language, and they created jobs to assemble the computers that were developed in the country.
I remember sitting down with one kindergarten student who was working on a math program. I asked him, what was his favorite subject? He said, “math.” I thought it was fabulous, and I was surprised to learn from his teacher that math was actually his weakest subject. So we found that this computer program, that was just self-paced practice once a week, allowed students to become engaged through a different way of learning than what was being taught in class.
Changemakers: If other countries can make such progress, what are the barriers that are holding back social investment and grant-making for education in the United States?
Ibrahim: Political stonewalling and economic limitations. Society has changed so much, and what businesses need has also changed. Yet the fundamental education system in the United States has stayed the same.
We tend to be driven by four-year political election cycles and sometimes we don’t have the ability to make the kind of immediate, sweeping changes like, say, a country like China. It’s one of the blessings and challenges of the way our political system works.
In the United States, there’s a real opportunity for private-sector partnerships, but it requires a deep understanding of who to partner with — who also has a vested interest, whether it’s based in finances or in the development of human capacity.
And since the tech sector is very results-focused and fast moving, a project needs to be something that’s measurable quantifiably as well as qualitatively. That can be a challenge.
Changemakers: Early on, you demonstrated how to create a private-sector partnership with a school in challenging circumstances, when you introduced a computer lab to your father’s orphanage in Lebanon.
Ibrahim: I set up the first computer lab at my dad’s orphanage when I was 30 years old. Over ten years we’ve added to it and upgraded it, but I originally showed up there in 2000 with only about $25,000 that was raised through my colleagues at Intel.
At first, the response from the school was, “This isn’t the United States. You can’t build a computer lab in two months — we don’t even have a computer teacher. We don’t need computers, we need food and clothing.”
My dad, who was with me, just said, “Don’t discourage the girl. Let her show you what she can do.”
Eventually, we got the whole school behind it. We were given a classroom with one outlet. The power would go out several times a day, but by the end of two months, the school had hired a computer science major — a woman from the university — to serve as the computer teacher. We got the local community — including the students and other teachers — to help build the lab.
Now, many of those same students are working or in university, and on Facebook! So it’s been an amazing journey from when they touched a computer for the first time.
Changemakers: How did you create this remarkable mindset transformation?
Ibrahim: I think clarity of purpose, a well thought-out plan with milestones attached to it, and a credible, trustworthy partner were key. My dad was my secret weapon.
My dad was one of the success students from the school, and so they trusted him. I went to the school to say “thank you” for my father, for giving him his education, and to help other students have the same opportunity, but his presence helped build that relationship of trust.
Having funding that was dedicated to the computer lab was also critical. The people that donated the money had specific expectations for it to be used to set up a computer lab to help education.
The school gets money for other activities through other means, and so sticking to our purpose was key. We also had a clear plan for the funding to not only cover setting up the lab, but also the first year salary of the computer teacher, the electricity bill, the internet bill, etc.
Another learning was that the school didn’t recognize the true significance and potential of the computer lab in those early days. So I asked Lebanon’s English newspaper to come by, and they wrote a piece that said the lab was the most advanced in the country, on par with the best private schools.
The administration and students began to see how much time and attention people were paying to the lab. It wasn’t just the money; it was the time we spent there to show that we cared.
I conducted after-school training for any teacher who wanted to come and learn how to use the computer. Having that kind of attention helped the students understand how important it was to learn how to use the computer as a tool. It thrills me that the computer lab has been upgraded and maintained, providing even more students the opportunity to advance.
One of my favorite quotes by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran comes to mind: “It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
Want to support or learn more about cutting-edge solutions that boost STEM education? Check out the 10 finalists for the Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math (STEM) Education competition and vote for your favorite entry by visiting the competition site. Don’t wait! Voting ends at 5 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.